Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Trying to Keep Cool the 18thc Way in Colonial Williamsburg

Tuesday, August 2, 2016
Isabella reporting,

This past weekend I made a quick visit to Colonial Williamsburg, where it was hot, hot, hot, and tropically humid, too - the steamiest of Tidewater Virginia weather. As I walked (no, I'll be honest: I was dragging myself) around the historic area, I was impressed by how the women dressed in the style of c1775 seemed to look much more comfortable with the heat than I was, dressed c2016.

The secret to keeping bearably cool in the heat like our 18thc counterparts did? Apparently it's layers of linen and cotton that breathe and absorb perspiration away from the skin, plus straw hats against the sun.

Not far from the cabinet-maker's shop, Katy, upper left, was making a length of cord (probably destined for use as a drawstring) with the help of a lyre-shaped tool called a lucet. Her linen bedgown is comfortably loose and pinned closed, and given shape with the apron tied around her waist.

Sitting before the George Wythe House, Christian, right, was writing in her journal, pen in hand and inkstand on the bench beside her. In addition to her linen jacket, shift, and petticoat, she was wisely keeping from the sun with her wide-brimmed hat plus fingerless linen mitts, all designed to preserve a proper lady-like paleness.

In the shade of the courthouse porch, Mairin, lower left, was embroidering, her scissors hanging ready on a ribbon from her waist. She wore a mix of bright colors and prints that were cheerful and summery to modern eyes: a printed cotton short gown, a printed cotton neckerchief, a checked apron, and a bright yellow linen petticoat. In the shade, she didn't wear a straw hat, but she did make sure to keep her head covered with a neat linen cap. What 18thc woman wouldn't?

But all of these women were sitting still while they worked. The young women (I'm sorry I wasn't able to ask their names), below right, were working in the treading pit in the brickyard. With their feet bare and their petticoats tucked into their aprons, they took turns mixing water with clay to create the raw material for the brickmaker to mold into bricks. Visitors were invited to join them, shedding their shoes and sandals to take a turn in the treading pit and shrieking at the unfamiliar sensation of wet clay between the toes.

Beneath a tent-like shelter overhead against the sun - I suspect more to keep the clay from drying out than to protect the workers - the clay and water must have been pleasantly cool underfoot on this hot day. But passing visitors notwithstanding, this wasn't at all the romanticized, genteel way we often imagine the past. This was hard, tedious work, unskilled labor at its most basic, and I couldn't help but think of the 18thc women, men, and children who must have toiled in similar treading pits from dawn until dusk, from early spring until the frosts of fall - and likely for the most minimum of wages, too.

All photographs ©2016 by Susan Holloway Scott.


Jenna said...

Hi, Isabella. I loved this post because we don't always remember that in earlier eras it was much more difficult to keep cool. I learned some of the tricks you noted this summer when my daughter went to work as an orientation interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg. She's been telling me what they've taught them about how to remain comfortable in such high heat without compromising their 18th century attire. She's loving her job, heat and all, so I guess these tricks really do work.

Baby Rocket Dog and Hootie said...

Very nice that you three have joined forces for a diverse and most interesting blog. Thoroughly enjoying the read! Thank you.
Cassie P

ps-I do not see anywhere where I can sign up as a follower.

Lucy said...

I'd be interested to know how they're managing mosquito control ... without resorting to 21st century bug sprays.

Thanks for a lovely and informative post--and if you get the chance to do a follow-up, the treading pit would, I think, make a fascinating post of its own, since the young woman was clearly working the clay with both hands and feet, and seems to have had an intended pattern in arranging it--not just mashing the stuff down.

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